What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia: Book Review and Hillbilly Elegy Comparison

Publisher’s Summary

In 2016, headlines declared Appalachia ground zero for America’s “forgotten tribe” of white working class voters. Journalists flocked to the region to extract sympathetic profiles of families devastated by poverty, abandoned by establishment politics, and eager to consume cheap campaign promises. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is a frank assessment of America’s recent fascination with the people and problems of the region. The book analyzes trends in contemporary writing on Appalachia, presents a brief history of Appalachia with an eye toward unpacking Appalachian stereotypes, and provides examples of writing, art, and policy created by Appalachians as opposed to for Appalachians. The book offers a must-needed insider’s perspective on the region.

The Review

Elizabeth Catte is an East Tennessee native, with a Ph.D. in public history, which she received from Middle Tennessee State University, and co-owns a historical consulting company. Not only is she professionally qualified to write about the state of the Appalachian region today in relation to the history that fed our current issues, but she is a native and is intimate with the struggles of the residents in the poor, coal region of the Appalachians.

This book was short, a quick read, and that is really my only criticism and the reason this book is 4 stars instead of 5. I would have loved a longer book so she could go into greater detail on some of the topics she discusses. However, I understand the need to publish her book quickly on the tail of Hillbilly Elegy so that she could capitalize on its success and the conversation it ignited. It is incredibly difficult to get the mainstream media and average American to care about subjects such as this or be receptive to correcting inaccurate and painful stereotypes that Vance invoked in his disturbingly bestselling memoir.

As a historian and history consultant, Catte knows her history of the region and is a credible source for relaying that information to her readers. She takes the responsibility, where Vance negligently fell short, of setting the stage of Appalachia as it was developed through the years, the industries that took from the region, the evolution of local workers’ rights and struggles through this time, and most importantly, the assertion that Appalachia (as an immense region) is not wholly Scots-Irish or white.

She accurately describes the diversity of the region, its alignment with modern issues, and shuts down the notion of Other that so many paint Appalachians, that they genetically differ from the rest of the nation. We don’t. To paint us that way, Catte explains, is to promote eugenics (“the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics).”-From Dictionary.com). The idea of preventing the breeding of Appalachians through sterilization was promoted by prominent spokespeople from the area and beyond during the 1960s-70s. Eugenics was a favored idea of Nazis, FYI.

4/5 Stars

Hillbilly Elegy Versus What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia

Catte’s book is obviously a direct and scathing rebuttal to J. D. Vance’s Hillybilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (my review of his book is linked). That is critical in understanding her position while writing this book. I felt similarly enraged and misrepresented after reading Vance’s “memoir” and felt somebody local to the region needed to step up and refute his claims. A better person could not have stepped up to the plate. I will thank God every day for women like Elizabeth Catte and her little (enormously important) book.

The historical perspective she frames in this book is so important to the discussion of Appalachia, coal mining, employment in the areas coal mining has left economically destroyed and/or stagnant, and the greater discussion of white insecurity in America at the moment. So often you hear the cliched phrase, “Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Nowhere is that phrase more chilling and pertinent than this book where Catte exposes the similarities in moments in our local history that do seem to repeat themselves and will continue to do so while these images and beliefs about Appalachians exist.

Catte explores the role of activism in Appalachia, the tactics corporations and politicians used to undermine those activists and their message. She is also honest about race in the region, the history of racism white Appalachians participated in, where Vance tried to absolve us of any blame which is grossly historically inaccurate. She relates several documented instances which inform her position on this. But Catte does absolve the region of its accused blinding whiteness. People of color do occupy Appalachia, share the history of the region, and the struggles of their profession in the coal mines, on the railroad, etc. Diversity exists here where outsiders insist it does not and they subsequently try to erase the ownership of the region of people of color, the lives they’ve built, and the inroads for the progress they’ve made.

Vance excludes people of color from his memoir when discussing Appalachians and his beloved “hillbillies.” He repeatedly refers to the Scots-Irish ancestry of the region and how Appalachians have retained that genetic heritage more than any other community in the nation. Catte astutely accuses him of racist generalizations by erasing people of color from the region and culture, not to mention the settlement of French, German, English, Swedish, Scandinavian, Dutch, etc., and his tendency to favor the eugenics theory, that the shortcomings of Appalchians are a result of shared, flawed genetics. His book, when viewed through this lens, should scare the shit out of us. Because we are not genetically different from the rest of the nation though the notion is so widely shared by outsiders. Because sterilization has been considered to limit our population. Because corporate interest is such a powerful force with our government at all levels.

Catte goes further in her accusations against Vance’s theories on the area by charting his preference for sources favored by white supremacist and nationalist individuals. The eugenics theory and practice, “brain drain,” the proud Scots-Irish genealogy should all be viewed as red flags of his priorities, especially as there is no doubt he will run for a political office in the next five years.

K.O.!

Overall, her authority shines through and makes Vance’s novel and theories pale in comparison. His lack of research, lack of insight into the sociopolitical structure of the Eastern Kentucky area he references repeatedly, and insistence on their (consequently his) genetic purity really expose him for what he is, a politically ambitious, pseudo-intellectual with white supremacist tendencies. Even more stark after reading Catte’s response is the insincerity of Vance’s assertions that writing his memoir did not mean he intended to be a spokesperson for the poor, white working class. Yet he continues to tour and speak on the topic, he published a book on the subject knowing very, very little of the truth behind the struggles in the region. It is glaringly obvious when read in conjunction with Catte’s rebuttal that he intended to capitalize on national insecurities using Appalachians to justify white insecurity and nationalist trends.

In short, read What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, not Hillbilly Elegy.

Valley & Sky

My name is Sky. Judith, my stepmother, said that is because my mother gave birth to me in the yard under the summer midafternoon sky, the kind where rifted white clouds skimmed the highest reach of the Heavens. Lacking imagination for a decent Christian name she had muttered, “Sky,” when asked for a name for the skinny, white-haired baby the midwife handed her before she promptly fainted.
My mother was not a strong woman. She was always thin, bone edges protruding from the angles of her body, her collarbone a shelf for her neck and head. Childbirth seemed to steal what little life force she had. I was the oldest. My little brother came next, named Dusk, signifying the time of day he entered the world. And my youngest sibling, a sister called Valley, was the youngest and the one who stole my mother’s last breath, releasing it in a sigh as Valley took her very first gulp of mountain air, then promptly screamed, startling the birds from their trees where they had settled during the unusually quiet labor.
Maybe because of my name, or by some intuition of my mother’s, I have always been entranced by the sky. I have watched it lighten in the early dawn, pale in the waning evening. I have tracked the scuttle of clouds from storms ripped to shreds and blown by the wind. I can trace the years passed by my impressions of the sky.

***

My feet had gone numb minutes ago, curled over the bar of the chair legs I sat hunched in. They were bare, they usually were. Shoes were a commodity this far in the country, and her Daddy would only buy us one pair a year, usually more often trading for them, whatever cheap, canvas lined things he could find that would barely survive the winter slogs through shin-high snow and boggy mud to get to the schoolhouse 5 miles away. I was used to numb feet.
What I wasn’t accustomed to was watching my sister staring lifelessly outside, brown eyes that once glistened with spirit now half shuttered by pale, blonde lashes and roguishly red cheeks. Too red for her lack of vitality and splotched from her cheekbones to her collarbone where the quilt sagged to reveal a brittle frame.
Valley’s tiny body lay still under the ratty quilts. Her face was angled towards the window, her jaw a sharp, white line against the dirt-stained fabric.
In the hills, everything was dirty, but nobody seemed to mind. The dirt was our link to nature, and nature our inheritance from God. When you didn’t have a lot, you made what you did have a blessing.
There was a chill in the air, even inside the cabin, fall had come to call and wasn’t waiting for us to open the door. Our coal stove sat in a corner unused, dusty, black with the soot of fires past. Valley didn’t have the strength to light it. I didn’t have the heart.